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home : insight & opinion : letters to the editor May 24, 2016

12/6/2013 11:06:00 AM
A local response to ethanol critiques


When things are going well again it's easy to forget that we were once financially embarrassed, or that we might not survive a health threat or that we might run out of a major resource. A few years after the fact our memory fades, our hero becomes someone we once knew.

A dozen years ago we were concerned that one day we would run out of our favorite, convenient, reasonable priced, readily available energy source, oil. We were also afraid that our favorite energy source might not be good for our health. We were concerned that we were sending huge amounts of cash to nations that actually don't like us much and that they might put "major stress" on our financial well being. Here in rural America, we were afraid that too many of our "smart kids" would have to leave the area to find good jobs.

Here in Crawford County, a small group of people were trying to figure out ways to keep agriculture financially viable. All across the Midwestern corn belt others were doing the same thing. I remember when our group would meet monthly to brainstorm, looking for anything from new crops to tourism to help our situation.

Along came ethanol that could be made from our surplus corn. It was a safe, easy-to-use fuel that could be blended with gasoline to help it burn clean, and it didn't cause cancer. At that time the ethanol industry was less than 1-1/2 billion gallons. When we built our plant at Palestine it was the 29th one built in the United States. Now there are over 200 of them.

Ethanol would replace MTBE as an additive, and it is renewable. Ethanol mixes easily with gasoline, it does not require major changes in our fuel infrastructure or our fuel systems. Even though ethanol contains less energy than gasoline it has much higher octane. If we are to have higher fuel mileage without reverting to lightweight motorized "skateboards," high-octane can help. Turbocharged or high-compression engines can squeeze more usable power out of a gallon of fuel.

Ethanol has been so successful that it is now a viable threat to a significant share of our liquid fuel market. Primarily it now competes favorably against imported oil. The ethanol industry has now grown to a size greater than the amount of our oil we were importing from Saudi Arabia.

Some have said we are having to choose between food and fuel. That is really not true. In the first place, no one actually eats field corn. In the second place, ethanol is made from the starch in corn, so we leave all the protein for the livestock industry to feed to pigs, chickens, turkeys, and cows. Further, let me point out that Americans have the most plentiful, highest quality, cheapest, most reliable food supply the world has ever known. If we had to "sing for our supper" it would be the shortest song in history. Only a couple of generations ago here and in most places around the world today, people spend much, much more of their time providing food for their families.

Some say ethanol has driven the price of corn too high. I ask, compared to what? In 1970, I bought my first new car, a Plymouth Road Runner, for $3,200. It burnt gasoline that cost between 20 and 30 cents per gallon. Three years ago we bought a minivan for 12 times as much and gasoline costs 14 times as much. In 1970, corn sold for $1.16 a bushel. Today it's less than four times that. The highest it's been in my memory was last year after the worst drought in three generations. It got to around 7 times what it was in 1970.

Some say we can't produce enough corn. In 1936, farmers grew 2.6 billion bushels of corn on 102 million acres. Last year we grew almost six times as much on six percent fewer acres. In 77 years our national corn yield average has gone from 26 to 160 bushels per acre. A farmer in Iowa was able to grow 577 bushels per acre non-irrigated. On average we gain one and one-half to two bushels per acre each year. In fact, 15 percent of this 2013 corn crop will be left over when the 2014 crop gets here.

Some say we are abusing the land. Certainly some farmers are more careful than others. However, all farmers are fully aware that our farm land is our foundational resource and that it is a finite resource, representing 7 percent of the earth surface. I'm a fertilizer dealer and I haven't met the first farmer that puts on too much fertilizer or wastes pesticides. In fact, that aspect of farming has become a high-precision operation with the use of GPS soil testing and GPS controlled applicators.

Some say that ethanol requires more energy than it produces. That may have been true several years ago but it certainly is not true today. Every unit of energy in the ethanol process from the corn planter to the finished product produces 2.3 units of energy. Since 2001, our energy use has dropped dramatically. We now use 28 percent less natural gas, 32 percent less electricity, and 47 percent less water. Corn fields are the largest, convenient solar power harvesters in the history of the world and ethanol plants are the most efficient converters of that solar energy into an easy to use renewable liquid fuel.

The ethanol industry has been criticized for spending a lot of money lobbying Congress on behalf of the renewable fuel standard. Ethanol is a young, small industry compared to those who would limit our future. Imported oil has the most to lose if the ethanol market is allowed to grow. Certainly they are able to fund and spread out-of-date, half-true misinformation.

Ethanol reduces greenhouse gases by 40 percent to 50 percent compared to traditional gasoline. Ethanol has created nearly 90,000 jobs and helps support at least 300,000 more. Even though fuel prices have gone up, a study by the University of Wisconsin estimates that without ethanol they would have gone up 20 percent to 25 percent more. By the way, so far, not one soldier has lost his or her life or has been wounded guarding an ethanol plant or a corn field.

Robin Guyer


Officials don't get to pick which laws to enforce


I read the article in the 25 November paper about the enforcement of state smoking laws and was perturbed by the comment by the mayor that he disagreed with the state making rules about what can happen on private property.  Does he realize that city zoning laws do exactly that, or does he not agree with those either?

Does the mayor and city council get to pick and choose which laws they want to enforce.  Whether you support the Illinois non-smoking laws or not - they are still the law.  If the council chooses not to enforce laws it would be nice if they'd give the public a list of those they choose to ignore so we can ignore them to. 

     I guess what really amazed me was that the fines would be kept locally and they didn't appear to care about that.  I suspect the councils main concern is that of offending their smoking friends, but would point out to them that laws are not made to protect the offender - no matter the offense - but rather to protect the rights of others. 

     Any politician, city, state, or federal who chooses to ignore enforcement of laws should think about other work.  I hear McDonalds is taking applications.


Phil Montgomery


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